Tales from the underground

Grainy photography. Zombie-like acting. Shots so murkily dark or blindingly bright that you're not sure what they show - and given the story line, you're not sure you want to know.

That's a square person's stereotype of underground movies, and some offerings at the eighth New York Underground Film Festival did live up - or down - to such expectations as it unspooled last week at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

But there's more to the underground scene than minuscule budgets, low-rent equipment, and artists with more ambition than talent. Underground movies confront and challenge Hollywood's notion that high-concept formulas and technical slickness are what count most in filmmaking. If energy, sincerity, and creativity are measures of cultural value, to overlook the underground is to risk overlooking much exciting and original stuff.

One problem with discussing the underground scene is figuring out what "underground" means in the first place. Some associate the term with avant-garde classics by giants like Kenneth Anger and George Kuchar, who disdain commercial appeal in favor of profoundly personal expression. Others use it to tag subversive, transgressive works that defy social conventions.

So let a zillion flowers bloom. Movies on view in the New York festival ranged from shaky-camera quickies to feature-length extravaganzas. Some were shot on video by people who clearly haven't mastered the on-off button yet, while others showed real understanding of what cinema can do when standard patterns are turned upside down, inside out, and every which way.

At their best, even the briefest works gave hints of what an unfettered imagination can accomplish with limited means.

For example, Jennet Thomas's short "Sharony!" makes a witty feminist statement with its sardonic tale of two little girls who incubate a blow-up disco queen in their doll house. Jim Trainor evokes surprisingly strong emotions in "The Moschops," a minimalist animation about a dying tribe of ancient animals.

In the feature-length department, "Coffin Joe: The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins" tells the true story of a Brazilian exploitation-film director whose one-of-a-kind career evinced the same anything-goes spirit that makes the New York festival such an adventure. Directed by Andre Barcinski and Ivan Finotti, it came here directly from the influential Sundance filmfest, showing that a truly feisty documentary can earn mainstream and underground accolades with equal ease.

Coffin Joe as a role model for aspiring filmmakers - it's an idea that should make Hollywood nervous!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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